Despite limited participation, advocates see potential for Northeast transportation cap-and-invest plan

Amid a broad federal infrastructure debate, a much-hyped partnership between Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states could add significant funding to help meet ambitious emissions reduction and equitable transportation goals. But despite optimism among experts and officials, the collaborative spirit has not translated into action, as a number of participants have yet to sign on.

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have been organized under the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), an effort to create a cap-and-invest program to cut transportation emissions. In 2019, twelve states and D.C. released a draft memorandum of understanding establishing a plan to set a regional cap whereby gasoline and diesel emissions would decrease every year. Fuel companies would pay for pollution allowances under the program, estimated to bring in up to $7 billion annually, which would then be invested into clean transportation options.

The program had a goal of reducing transportation emissions by up to 26% by 2032, with emissions caps set to start in 2023.

However, the difficulties of the pandemic and opposition from conservatives and fuel companies has led to lower participation than originally thought. In 2020, only four participants — Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia — signed on to the final memorandum of understanding. And the Boston Globe reported last week that the legislatures of Connecticut and Rhode Island have not signed off on the program, as legally required.

Connecticut is poised to have a special session this fall which could include approval of TCI; the Rhode Island Senate passed a bill approving the program, but it was not picked up by the state House.

Under the agreement, three governments must approve TCI for it to begin, which could lead to delays. In a statement to the Globe, Craig Gilvarg, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs said the administration “continues to believe the program’s capacity to combat climate change and build better, cleaner transportation infrastructure is unmatched.”

TCI was designed for states to join on a rolling basis, recognizing both the political and policy differences among state administrations. Some advocates believe that having four jurisdictions work as early leaders can help convince more governments to join. TCI has been beset by some criticism from opponents who feared it could raise fuel prices in a way that would unfairly hurt poor communities. 

“Policy making is never easy. That’s especially true when it involves multiple jurisdictions working together to address something as complex and urgent as climate and transportation policy,” said Kate Zyla, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center. “We’ve been pleased to see the states continue to demonstrate their commitment to working together to move this process forward.”

The other original TCI partners — Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Vermont, Pennsylvania and Virginia — signed a statement of support and have continued to participate in discussions around the program. Maine and New Hampshire had been part of early TCI talks, but decided against formal participation.

The TCI funds were designed to promote clean and accessible mobility solutions. Massachusetts, for example, has said the money would be spent on public transportation, electric vehicle charging, bike lanes, sidewalks and high-speed wireless internet in rural and low-income areas to support teleworking. 

Those goals also dovetail with the Biden administration’s policy proposals for a federal infrastructure package, which Democrats have said should incentivize sustainable transportation. Jordan Stutt, carbon programs director for the Maine-based Acadia Center, said TCI could be a helpful regional supplement to federal infrastructure spending, putting even more resources behind a costly transition to a cleaner transportation system. 

“Nobody’s expecting this program is going to solve every state’s funding needs or that TCI alone will mean a state can hit its climate targets,” Stutt said. “But this kind of program and the hundreds of millions of dollars it brings in can help fund those critical policies that are important to the future of our communities.”

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